Forget the typical homecoming parade featuring a drill team doing high kicks or throwing batons. This troop marches to an entirely different beat.
The Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, which has about 30 high school members, introduces the Chinese culture to the masses by waving large colorful flags at cultural festivals and events each year, all while wearing highly ornamented Cantonese opera costumes and marching in military formation.
This drill team gets the spotlight in a new documentary, “She Marches in Chinatown,” that tells the story of a one-of-a-kind cultural tradition. The group subverts the idea of what being an American girl looks and feels like.
“What it is to be a good Chinese girl? What does it mean to be a good American girl? It’s really hard to figure out what that is when you’re growing up,” a member of the drill team said in the documentary’s trailer.
In Seattle, generation after generation of Asian American girls have carried on a one-of-kind legacy for over 70 years by joining a team that combines Chinese opera costumes and American military drills.
Since 1952, the girls drill team — founded at a time in feminist history when the American woman’s overwhelming cultural role was as “a happy homemaker” — has been a unique way for Asian American girls and women in Seattle to fight for empowerment, passed down from mother to daughter, the documentary emphasizes.
“She Marches in Chinatown” follows the history of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team. The documentary’s director, Della Chen, told NBC News that she hopes the 33-minute film will be taught in schools as a part of Seattle and Washington state history.
“It goes beyond the drill team. It’s about preserving this culture and history and a Chinatown that is disappearing,” Chen said of Seattle’s Chinatown neighborhood — which is primarily occupied by Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese people, Filipinos and African Americans and was named one of the country’s most “endangered” historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2023.
The girls’ drill team was founded in 1952 by a local group of girls called the Chi-ettes with the help of Ruby Chow, a prominent Chinese American restaurateur and civic activist in Seattle, the documentary says. She had started the activity as a way for the young girls to develop social skills, self-esteem and cultural identity.
Chow explains in the film that she came up with the idea for the unique costuming through her husband, Edward Shui “Ping” Chow, who had been a Cantonese opera singer for much of his youth. The brightly colored costumes, each around 8 pounds and adorned with 8,000 beads, are modeled after female warriors that appear in Cantonese opera performances.
“In Cantonese opera, there’s always a legend of women warriors and they were always beautiful, intelligent and strong,” Ruby Chow said in 2002.
The team’s performance is based on American military-style drills. Chow explained she had approached Seattle police department’s drill instructor Ted Yerabek to teach the new girls’ team drills, which he did for around 15 years.
Chow’s daughter, Cheryl Chow, a member of the drill team as a child, took over as the team’s director from her mother after she graduated from college. By the team’s 50th anniversary, it boasted over 100 members, according to the documentary.
More than half a century after the drill team was founded, practicing in the same building and parking lot as generations past, current members say it gives them a sense of community and a place to meet other girls who look like them.
Though the volunteer-led operation is called the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, many of its members are Asian Americans of other ethnicities, come from multiracial backgrounds or were transracially adopted, according to Chen, the director. Many girls have intergenerational ties to the drill teams because their mothers and grandmothers participated, according to Chen.
Colleen McKisson has been in the drill team since she was 11 years old at the behest of her mother. Now 18 and in her ninth year with the team, she is a freshman at the University of Washington and was just promoted to team captain.
McKisson was around 9 months old when she was adopted by her parents from China. She said that just under half of the team are also Chinese adoptees and that team gave her a sense of cultural identity.
“I remember joining the group and they were so extroverted, so welcoming, that I looked up to them,” McKisson said. “I really strive to be what I looked up to when I was younger.”
Chen, who was born and raised and still lives in Seattle, said she grew up watching the drill team perform at the annual Seafair Torchlight Parade. Though she was not able to join herself, Chen said that her daughter is now a member of the team.